By John Flynn
Another rehearsal was over. The rain had slackened to drizzle. Val Harnick thought it suitably glum weather for Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and as he recalled his favorite passage it occurred to him he did nothing in his life to perfect the art of listening.
Flexing swollen fingers, dreading marathon rehearsals to come, he led Elena and Trent into The Swallowtail. Margie Korb greeted them. Val hadn’t known she worked there. He stroked his graying beard, and worked up a smile for her.
Margie quipped, "If it ain’t Mister Elegance."
Lips sealed, Val took the jab in stride. Many in this city didn’t like him. So it went among the hoi polloi. Eat or be eaten. And he was one of them. He slid a nervous hand down his burgundy tie. His black shirt hugged a spot at his lower back, moisture spreading there as he watched Margie annoy Trent with her pushiness.
Elena she was meeting for the first time. She sneered at her. Elena, a brunette half Margie’s size, bit her lower lip and sat as Val pulled out a chair for her.
Trent’s overstated cough didn’t clear the air of hostility. "Middle of the dining room? Can’t we do better, Margie?"
"We’d prefer a little privacy," said Elena.
"Would you now?" said Margie. They followed her to a booth in the back. Trent muttered "typical BS." as he sat and buried his face in a menu.
Val ordered a slice of cheesecake. Elena ordered mint tea. Trent was loudest and a bit surly. "Just decaf."
Margie was terse. "That’s it?" She sounded a light snort, and trooped off.
Elena watched her. "What a cow. What’s her problem?"
Trent said, "She grew up here. You’ll get used to it."
"I flunked her son," said Val. "It kept him from graduating. But let’s not talk about that now." He clapped his hands together. "So, here we are. And Carson’s debut is three weeks away. Can you believe it?"
Carson was their new conductor. Handsome and rife with potential, he’d replaced the late Orlando Bonnardi. Orlando had been Val’s friend from their days in Manhattan together, and he’d lured Val and his wife to this city and its modest orchestra.
"I miss him, I really do," said Val.
Trent wasn’t listening. Nor was Elena, and this offended him. He began undressing her, starting with her yellow silk blouse. He stopped when she looked up at him. She knew, and he knew. He wondered if they’d be stupid enough to give in.
Not that he found her attractive—her energy and intelligence, but not her looks. Perhaps it was the idea of the transgression that appealed to him. She was a chilly and unforgiving perfectionist with edges in her face that reminded him of glaciers. He preferred roses. Preferred Orlando to Carson. Elgar to Haydn. Cheesecake to quiche.
"So tell us about your big plans," he said.
She squinted as if to reply: I’m on to you. Everything about her was too sharp. "I may audition for the Utah Symphony. It’s underrated, you know. I’m looking at Cleveland, and Dallas is an option, too."
"I’m headed straight for Berlin, myself."
"In your dreams," said Trent.
"He speaks," cried Val. "I thought for a moment you were trying to memorize it."
"What?" said Trent.
"The menu," said Elena.
"Oh. I thought it was a Bach score. The rude version."
Val, sighing, studied Trent’s shale-colored features. Like Elena, he couldn’t endure much sunlight. He played viola and upright bass. She, on the other hand, a flutist, was ancient beyond her years, fresh out of graduate school. She resented needing to teach and complained it was beneath her.
"You’re not exactly the Dallas type," he said.
"I’d be perfect. I’m very adaptable."
Val held in check an impulse to laugh. She had one concert under her belt, and had never been out of the Northeast. None of them had.
"Elena, you’re young." His face darkened. Time, time—Orlando had been gone almost two years. His oldest daughter was a high school senior. "The world’s still your oyster, as they say."
Elena fumed. "What does that banal cliché really mean?"
Trent said, "Can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen."
"You should talk."
Val bore down on Trent until he cowered behind his menu.
Margie didn’t bring their order. A busboy did, and he looked tired and unwashed. Val tried to make eye contact, but the boy looked through him as if he wasn’t there.
Why did he bother being a gentleman, trying to please busboys, and the likes of Margie, and bridging the tiff between Trent and Elena? His wife was right—he wasn’t a dreamer, he was something worse; he didn’t see a better world, he expected the one he lived in to be fair and decent. And it wasn’t.
He should focus on listening, and promise. He smiled at Elena. "Let’s hear what you think of Carson. I helped hire him, you know."
Elena sounded as if she was selling a car. "He's a good young conductor."
Trent’s head, topped with puffy ginger-colored hair, emerged from behind the menu. His pallor was as pasty as Elena’s, his green eyes too close together. He drew a curlicue with his unlit cigarette. "With a lot to learn."
Val had to admit there were times when he didn’t like Trent. Perhaps he pitied him, because he saw in Trent some of his own failings. He said, "Carson will never be as steady as Orlando was."
"But that’s the beauty of youth," said Elena. "He’s not stale yet."
Twenty-six, wasn’t she? In her self-aware prime—she had answers, by God.
"I think he's too aggressive with the Mozart."
"Not that again," cried Trent. "Didn’t you flog him enough at rehearsal?"
"It wasn’t like anyone was listening," said Elena.
"Somebody was," said Val.
Had he, at her age, been as callous? He glanced across the room, and saw Margie drop into a chair, resting tired feet.
Watching her, he felt a smoldering anguish seep into his body. It thickened him, as if a narcotic. His mind became clouded with fragmented memories. He recalled the parents' night when he’d first told Margie that her son had to start attending class. He never did. Maybe Margie never told him. As far as Val knew, a father wasn’t involved. Christ. Poor Margie.
Cymbals clashed. Wagnerian skies opened. Val was fresh, single, and ready to play for any orchestra in the world. Dating all sorts of women, waiting tables in Manhattan, auditioning wherever he could. Playing his cello ten hours a day until his fingertips were as hard as toenails and ached all the time. And teaching not because he wanted to, of course, but because he had to.
Skies closed. During his last visit to New York, he learned yet another restaurant and club he once worked in was now gone. Everything changed. Each note swelled and fused into a melodious expansion that all heard and were smitten by, but few listened to.
The din took over and Val drowned in it. It’s what a restaurant was for. A place to lose focus, where he could enjoy needed time alone, yet among peers. Where he could fall into reverie and be swept away.
"Where are you?" asked Elena. She stared at him. "Val? Earth to Val." She turned to Trent. "Is he on meds?"
Trent asked, whispering, "Val, how’s Vienna? Tell Strauss I said hello."
Elena, rolling her eyes, knocked on the table. "You asked me about Carson, and then you zoned out. You want an answer or not?"
Was that Elena? She just jumped right in, as thoughtless as she was selfish, as if her opinions were necessary. No. He was being unfair. At her age, he’d been the same way, but not nearly as opinionated. If anything, a lack of conviction had hurt him.
"Sorry. I’m out of sorts. Long day of glorified babysitting."
"You should quit, Val. You’re better than that place."
He watched Elena toy with the cut glass of a G-clef brooch pinned to her yellow blouse. "My oldest daughter’s bound for college next year. Earth to Elena."
"Back to Carson," she said. "He punches it out. It should meander and cajole."
"Right, let’s talk music," said Trent. "It’s about time."
"Time," said Val. And there it was. Six letters. The mot juste. "Did you say cajole?"
He’d been racking his brain ever since he’d left the crossword next to the toilet. He hoped one of his girls hadn’t thrown it out. He chuckled to himself. Answers came. Puzzles were solved. Sometimes, his life was tiny. This was one of those times, and he shouldn’t fight it. He needed to finish that crossword.
"I said meander and cajole," said Elena.
"Nice word, cajole. It’s got a hum to it, yet it cuts like a hatchet."
"I prefer meander."
"But you can appreciate words, can’t you?"
Trent coughed across the table. "I definitely can."
"Cover your mouth," scolded Elena.
Val asked her, "I’m curious. Do you think it’s right to just flow and flow and sound your opinions and take everything down with you?"
Trent leaned over the table, poked a cigarette into his mouth and played the table as if he were a gangly Scott Joplin. "Val, I think you’re on to something."
Elena squinted, smirking at both of them. "I’ll just pretend I didn’t hear that. But since you asked about Carson I’ll talk about Carson. I think his timing patterns, his whole presence is beyond words."
"Beyond?" Trent stopped tinkling imaginary keys. He looked smug. He flashed a grin at Val that smacked of conspiracy.
Val looked away, dodging Trent. "Should be a grand debut," he said.
Then he gazed at Elena’s blouse, as if he knew they were both lost, and Elena was due for a future of heartbreak. Were his daughters? Was he? He sighed self-consciously. He imagined kissing Elena’s naked body, her freckled back, the curls of her black hair, the cut of her eyes. Oh, he was lost, all right. Wasn’t it blissful?
"Time," he said gently. "Timing, and time signatures, they’re everything."
Trent said, "Not just in music, either."
"Trent, we know," said Elena. She lifted her chin. Val thought it looked like the round head of a ball-peen hammer. He knew such hammers. His father had been a metals fabricator. Study, he’d say. Listen.
Missed the old man, too. And knew his own flaws, and he’d reluctantly come to accept them.
He watched Elena study his features. She had, indeed, been interested, but he could see in her eyes that all those bonfires had died. It hadn’t been about him; it had been about what he could do for her, what kind of influence he had. She’d kill her mother if it meant a first chair in a major orchestra, but she was hurt and disappointed now because she’d come to understand he couldn’t help her career.
Her flaws were obvious. She wasn’t comely, exceptional, gracious, or patient. She was snake-eyed, adequate, trained. She lacked the roses and the whiff of Elgar he craved, but she was steely enough for any heights the vicious rasp of her ambitiousness would help her achieve.
Had he really been thinking of adultery? Thank God, he hadn’t let on. Certainly, he adored his wife and kids.
Trent, like a dog picking up a scent, eyed the two of them and sneered.
Elena remarked, "Carson will improve with age. The way great men do."
"What do you know about great men?"
There, he’d raised his voice and he’d let it fly, at last. He felt his body glow with the heat of released emotion. He’d wanted to blurt out a reprimand, and then vanish. But he couldn’t vanish. There he was. His words hung in the air.
Trent must have known he’d needed such a release. He was on his feet and he wasn’t kittenish, for a change. He faced Elena. "Carson isn’t the issue and you know it. You’re using Val. And you wish I wasn’t here, don’t you? I’m in your way."
Elena frowned. "Don’t be an ass, Trent. You’re staring at a pro. I’m out of this hole in a year, if that. You’re the jealous one."
A lump like a hot ember spread inside Val’s stomach. His shoulders drooped; he tugged little pieces off each corner of his napkin. The cheesecake was gone, and he’d already forgotten every bite.
He struggled to sit up straight. Here was a bomb he’d lit and now had to defuse. There would be no bridge. Once again, he’d been a dreamer.
"Beautiful Orlando," he mused. "Know what I miss most about him? His love. His playfulness. A professional knowledge that in the big scheme of things he was just a skilled practitioner. It’s all too serious now. Career before passion. Never for the joy, or the moment."
Trent, red in the face, still standing, raged toward the exit. "I need a smoke."
Elena watched him go and then blew a sigh. "What a buffoon. I don’t know what you see in him. You deserve better, Val. You sell yourself short. Orlando’s gone. Move on. Don’t you get it?"
Oh, he got it all right. He felt it, too, but talk was cheap and he preferred to discuss the way cheesecake warmed his soul. How he wanted to float away on seas of unbridled passion. Listening he could embrace; ambition should stay in its snake pit.
He patted his stomach. Nearly 20 years ago, Trent had been his first memorable student. After finishing college, he’d come back to his roots. Val had known him before either of his daughters had been born.
He’d sound silly explaining to Elena what Trent’s success meant to him and how Trent’s days as a student seemed like yesterday. How proud he was of Trent, and of himself, just as Orlando had been proud of him.
"You’ll have to forgive Trent. He’s learning how to listen. It’s painful sometimes."
"I don’t care about Trent. I care about you." Elena’s face whitened as she blinked twice. "Allow yourself ambition. Take a risk, for once."
He beamed at her as if lost in a vague reverie. "Risk? Do you know what that word means? It comes up all the time in crosswords. Think of it. In ten years my oldest daughter will be the age you’re at now. Does that spell risk?"
Elena’s jaw tightened, her lips blanching. "I’m trying to help you."
"Then answer this. How can I prepare her for all the assassins out there?"
"Are you even listening to me?
"I am. That’s why your word—cajole—it’s perfect. I want to spell it with a K. I needed it to unlock a crossword puzzle. It’s how boldly complicated my life is these days. My life of risk and ambition. That is, if I listen."
"If you listen to what?" she asked. "You’re not even here half the time."
He gazed away from her, then, showing a trace of indifference he thought brazen, but necessary. It wasn’t easy to do, but he had to remember she would find her answers for herself. Just as his daughter would. And Trent. And he, too. The questioning never ended. Nor the dreaming. Nor the need to listen.
"Perhaps you’re right."
And he imagined Trent with a cigarette alone under the canopy in front of the restaurant, watching cars hiss past on wet pavement, the drizzle having stopped, the rinsed air smelling faintly of worms.
John Flynn has work in The Paterson Review and Plumb Biscuit, and due out in The Powhatan Review. His chapbook A Dozen Lemons in Autotropolis is available from Pudding House Publications.
John's story Desire Equals Rain is available at VerbSap.
Photo "Wet Asphalt" courtesy of Ricardo Colombo, Americana, Brazil.
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